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There is a problem for the Englishman, perhaps for any speaker of the English language, in approaching the history of the Middle Ages, which is the immense barrier erected by the writers and artists of the nineteenth century. The Victorians were so obsessed by medieval culture that it is difficult to avoid seeing medieval England through their eyes. Everywhere one goes one sees their idea of the Middle Ages, in castles, churches, cathedrals, the decorative arts, heraldry and statuary. In prose and poetry, it is the Victorian idea of Arthur and his Round Table which occupies the mind. In the worlds of art, architecture, painting and design, we see the Middle Ages through a glass darkly, and the glass is very often Victorian and stained. In Leeds City Square there is a fine statue of the Black Prince, but it is a Victorian burgher's idea of the man and what he stood for.
Mark Girouard was well qualified to write this fine book. He worked for Country Life for many years, and is an authority on the English Country House. In almost twenty finely crafted chapters, he explains the many different ways in which the English explored and appreciated the medieval world in the nineteenth century. `The Return to Camelot' is an apt title, for he focuses on the re-invention of the idea of chivalry, which had fallen into abeyance in the preceding period. It is an enthralling and highly entertaining story, full of those eccentric characters for which the English have become justly famous. Read for example the story of Charles Lamb, who participated in the Eglinton Tournament in Scotland, but also devoted much of his life to writing the chivalric history of his guinea-pigs.Read more ›
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Around about the time of its wars against the French Revolution and then Napoleon, England witnessed an odd and interesting phenomenon that lasted through the entire 19th century and right up to the end of the Great War: The revival of the medieval code of chivalry, with King Arthur, knights in armor, the notion of courtly love, and all. The ideals of personal bravery and honour, service to the nation, and self-sacrifice reappeared in modified form and helped shape British culture for several generations, not only in art and literature but even in politics.
Sir Walter Scott's novels had a lot to do with reviving the myth of chivalry (and it was indeed mostly a myth), and so, too, did the paintings of Benjamin West, featuring the Black Prince and other knightly heroes. And Tennyson helped further the new myth in the next generation. There was a new rise of interest in the Middle Ages, but George IV and then the Victorians interpreted that period to suit themselves. Those with the money to build new country homes often opted for what they fancied were medieval-style castles. Prince Albert's tomb features a reclining sculpture on top depicting the Prince in full armor with his favorite dog at his feet, also in medieval funerary style. Even Baden-Powell promoted his new Boy Scouts in Arthurian chivalric terms.
The whole thing reached its climax with the deaths of Capt. Robert Scott and his companions in Antarctica early in 1912 (especially Capt. Oates, who "walked out to his death an English gentleman") and with the sinking of the TITANIC later that same year. Many of the English males aboard politely helped their wives and other women into the lifeboats and then stepped back, content to go down with the ship. At least, that was the myth.Read more ›
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